Thursday, 31 January 2013

Paul Doherty talks about books, education and Michael Gove

Dr Paul Doherty was recently awarded the OBE for his services to education.

Headmaster of Trinity Catholic High School in Woodford Green, Essex for the past 31 years, Dr Doherty’s honour is certainly well deserved. Trinity Catholic High School is highly sought after by parents in the east London and Essex areas. It has been judged “outstanding” in its last three Ofsted inspections and that has nothing to do with the fact that the present chief inspector of schools and head of Ofsted Mike Wilshaw is a former deputy of Dr Doherty’s at Trinity.

Education, education, education is a phrase that could have come from the lips of Dr Doherty, had not a certain former Prime Minister coined the phrase first.

For education has been central to Dr Doherty’s own development from his humble beginnings in 1940s Middlesbrough. His mother came from a mining family in the North-east; his father came from Northern Ireland. “My father couldn’t read or write, though he was a clever mathematician. He could calculate the odds at Kempton Park in a flash,” said Dr Doherty.

From Middlesbrough, Dr Doherty progressed to study history at Liverpool University, then onto Oxford to complete a thesis on Queen Isabella and the life of Edward II for his doctorate.

It was during this period of his life that the burning passion for history developed. “What I like about history is when the evidence is thin and there is another possible explanation,” said Dr Doherty, who quotes the case of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. “No one has ever really sat back and explained why Henry in a matter of days turned so violent towards Anne and later made her daughter illegitimate. Did he learn something about Ann that we don’t even know now?”

It was while doing his thesis on Edward II that Dr Doherty discovered that the King didn’t die and wasn’t murdered as is popularly believed. Dr Doherty’s thesis included details of a letter from a priest at the time, detailing how the Dominicans freed Edward from Barclay Castle, from where he went on to see out his days in a hermitage in Italy.

It was these studies that inspired Dr Doherty to become a novel writer. This second career started as an interest born of his research and fascination in history. Though, it was subsequently to result in his becoming a best-selling novelist, famed throughout the world, though still all the time doing the day job of leading a successful Catholic comprehensive school.

His first book drew on his historic research, bringing the story about Edward II together in “the Death of a King.” The book was published in 1986.

It was from here that the headmaster dual career began to blossom. More books followed, producing a year for a long time. Now, over the 100 mark, he has slowed to two a year.

He has now sold millions of books across the world, including Europe, the United States and Japan. “I am told I’m big in Bulgaria,” said Dr Doherty.

In financial terms, his earnings from books vastly dwarves the salary he receives as a headmaster. Yet at the age of 66, he retains the same infectious enthusiasm for writing as he has for education.

“I was raised on Colon Doyle and above all GK Chesterton. The Father Brown novels were seminal works. I love the two things, history and mystery,” said Dr Doherty, who recalls the death of the two princes in the Tower during the reign of Richard III. “There are indications that they died of natural causes in Royal lodgings. Elizabeth I took the French ambassador to those lodgings, where there was a secret room with the two skeletons,” said Dr Doherty. The lodgings were later pulled down during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule, with the remains of the princes buried under the White Tower. They were not discovered until the reign of Charles II.

Other populist accounts suggest the princes could have been killed by Richard III, Henry VII or that they did not die in the tower at all but escaped.

Dr Doherty’s favourite periods for writing history mystery novels about have been the medieval and ancient Egyptian times, though his most recent book, the Last of Days, focused on the final three months of the life of Henry VIII and whether he was actually murdered.

“I like telling stories. Facts, evidence and information. I know where to go to get it,” said Dr Doherty, who has no problems with web developments and devices like the kindle. His one reservation being the lack of control for the author. “People still love a good story,” said Dr Doherty. “The problem with writing, and what you see in the media, is the limited number of plots,” said Dr Doherty, who highlights the detective story centring on the single, divorced, reformed alcoholic male as all too typical of the genre. “People are constantly looking for new plots, which are what taxes the author.”

The author believes that there is an insatiable interest in murder mysteries and a desire of people down the ages to see justice done. “The attraction of the detective novel is that it is about justice, about someone being brought to book,” said Dr Doherty, who is a big admirer of Agatha Christie, who goes back in time and looks at any number of ways a person may be killed and the killer get away with it.

Returning though to the day job, Dr Doherty has been 34 years in Catholic education and 31 years at Trinity Catholic High School. He has no plans to retire. “It is not a job but a way of life,” said Dr Doherty, who is a strong adherent of comprehensive education. “I truly believe that an excellent comprehensive education system would transform this country. It is not right to stream or categorise, everyone is equal,” said Dr Doherty. “The Catholic Church has a vital role to play. We are not Johnny come latelies on this. Catholic education was here before the Roman legions left. Oxford and Cambridge were our Church foundations.”

Dr Doherty recalls how 1500 years ago, people came, they built a church. “Then the first thing the church was used for after mass was a school. I’m proud to be part of that legacy,” said Dr Doherty.

At Trinity Catholic High School, the Catholic ethos is strong. There are two chapels, with the Eucharist present. “We begin every school day with a mass,” said Dr Doherty, who has seen all seven of his own children come through the school. Three now teach there. He adds that they were all independently appointed, lest there be any suspicions of nepotism at play. “Anyone can come and see this is a very happy school. People like learning and coming to the school,” said Dr Doherty. “I don’t believe in education being punitive, that is why I am against the 11 plus. Children change, a child at 16 is different to one at 12.”

Maybe surprisingly for such a strong advocate of comprehensive education, Dr Doherty believes that the present Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove is doing a good job. He is critical of the view that has developed over the years that change is good for education. “Mr Gove puts an emphasis on teaching and learning. This is what schools are there to do. Past administrations have seen schools as responsible for everything and we cannot do everything. Schools were to replace the parish and local community, we can’t do that, we are schools and part of the local community,” said Dr Doherty.

Whilst generally approving of what Mr Gove is doing, the Trinity head does wish he would listen more to the faith schools on the question of the baccalaureate. “He’d win a lot of friends and allies if he did. I don’t understand why he won’t relent on RE. It is a discipline and a tough one,” said Dr Doherty.

Dr Doherty draws much of his own Catholic inspiration from the life of Thomas More. “I am fascinated by Thomas More, he is one of our greatest English saints, a great humanist,” said Dr Doherty, who admires More and fellow English saints like John Fisher for not getting drawn into the whole messy business of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Ann Boleyn. “He didn’t attack the King, Queen or Parliament but reiterated a simple message: the Pope is head of the universal Church, the mass is the mass and the Eucharist the Eucharist and left it at that,” said Dr Doherty. “It was a brilliant stance, not lecturing other people but saying this is the truth as I see it and leaving it at that.” His assertion was that if the settlement being put forward by Henry VIII was right, then the past 1,000 years were wrong.

This strong Catholic advocate of comprehensive education, who came from mining stock, was surprised and shocked to be awarded the OBE. “I had mixed emotions. It was ironic, given my own origins but a marvellous occasion to celebrate with other people,” said Dr Doherty. “It was fascinating to meet the Queen and go to Buckingham Palace.”

No doubt the award was well warranted for someone who has done so much to advance education in this country. This has come in the formal setting of the school and via his literary exploits – a number of which have thrown up some interesting insights on the Queen’s own antecedents.

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